Rena was born into a vulnerable family struggling to survive on the North West banks of the Bra-hama-putra river, an area prone to flooding. Living there means that her family home and the family’s livelihood is frequently destroyed. Their village floods two or three times every year. Whatever they build gets destroyed by nature……terrible, but it’s just how it is.
Most girls in Rena’ village don’t go to school. This means that like Rena they are married off at an uncomfortably early age. When I say uncomfortable I mean girls as young as 9 years old, children really. The best Rena and girls like her feel they can hope for is a peaceful marriage. Sadly Rena’s new husband and his family abused her both mentally and physically.
As anyone in these circumstances, especially a child, she grew weak, desperate and exhausted through her suffering. The logical Western response would be to leave your husband. But this kind of treatment is customary or expected by Bengali girls and so Rena resigned herself and adapted to her daily pain.
Her husband started talking about taking a second wife. His family pressurised Rena to agree. Rena was devastated and could not bring herself to do it. Despite her distress she was ignored and her husband arranged his second marriage anyway. She could bear it no longer. She was a young girl, ashamed and hurt. She was forced to return to her father’s home. Her family could barely afford to feed her but her return forced them to defend her even though her actions were considered unacceptable to their village.
She was divorced and ostracised, her husband continued to live with his second wife. Under local custom he was under no obligation to provide for her, and so he didn’t. It was left to Rena to sustain herself and her three children. Unbelievably, Rena somehow struggled through the situation for eight years. She continued to live dependant on her father, there was no other way for her to support her three children. She, as anyone here would, feared greatly for her future.
In 2004 Food for the Hungry started working in her village. They invited Rena to join a learning and savings group. Together, a group of the village women learned how to read and write. Rena developed numeracy and accounting skills. She found out about health and hygiene. She explored new values to live by and she saved a little money with her group each week. For the first time in her life she dared to believe in her ability to provide for her own children. Her group mentor inspired her to think about her future. The mentor supported her as she started to make arrangements to set up a grocery shop and tailoring business from her home. With her new skills and confidence plus a loan from her group savings fund Rena created a business through which she was able to earn 3,500 taka each month. The money immediately started going towards her children’s upkeep and schooling.
Today Rena still enjoys the weekly meetings with her new friends in the womens group. The group continues to save and learn a range of new skills. In one such week during a family law lesson Rena discovered that her ex-husband was obliged to contribute towards their children’s upkeep. She explored this further with the group law leader and then with help from a Food for the Hungry mentor they contacted her ex-husband. For the first time in 8 years he agreed to see his children. At the meeting, supported by the group mentor Rena and her husband were able to talk about the problems and eventually he agreed to support his children with regular financial assistance.
If you met Rena today you’d see a woman who is delighted that her daughters are studying in primary school. She is eternally indebted to her village group and Food for the Hungry for her success. She has been able to create an example of how women are entitled to support from their ex-husbands and is an inspiration to other women in her situation throughout the community. Today Rena is a self assured young woman determined to give her children the opportunities, protection and education she never had. It’s not hard to connect with her desires and hopes for the future. She wants no more from life than we all do.
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